UN blasted over Iraq oil-for-food scheme

Reuters                                                                                                                                            The New Zealand Herald                                                                                                              April 8, 2004

Washington: Corruption in a UN humanitarian programme for Iraq casts doubt on the United Nations’ ability to manage international initiatives, including helping Iraq become a sovereign government, the top US senator on foreign affairs said today.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar blasted the United Nations for allowing the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein to skim billions of dollars from a UN programme that let Iraq sell oil to buy food, medicine and other goods for its people.

Along with other senators, the Indiana Republican questioned whether the investigation called for by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan would get to the bottom of the scandal in which Saddam’s government gained money through kickbacks, bribes and surcharges.

“If the United Nations cannot be trusted to run a humanitarian programme, its other activities, including peacekeeping, arms inspection regimes, or development projects may be called into question,” Lugar said at a hearing.

“The credibility of the United Nations in attempting to . . . help transform Iraq is really at stake,” he said. Referring to the June 30 date for the US handover of power to Iraq, Lugar said it “would be a travesty” to compromise hopes for a new Iraqi government with “a UN administration that is just as suspect after June 30 as it was before.”

He said the United States should launch its own investigation into the fraud allegations. The General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative arm, has estimated that Saddam’s regime got $10.1 billion in illegal revenue from the UN programme between 1997 and 2002.

Congressional Republicans traditionally have been hostile to the United Nations, complaining it often has acted against the US interests while depending on US dues.

Lugar also blamed Russia, France and China for hindering probes so far.

The three countries were major participants in the programme, which involved oil companies paying revenues to a UN escrow account and the United Nations paying suppliers of goods Iraq purchased. The programme allowed some humanitarian purchases at a time when Iraq was under sanctions for invading Kuwait.

Corruption in the programme “almost certainly contributed to the international division over containing and ultimately ousting Saddam Hussein”, Lugar said. Russia, France and China opposed the US-led invasion.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, told the committee the United States has “strongly urged” Annan to appoint an investigating commission that has “the capacity and experience to make this process as thorough, viable and transparent as possible”.

While the United States for years tried to fight fraud in the oil-for-food programme, Negroponte said it did not have documents and witnesses on the extent of the corruption until after the fall of Saddam’s government.

Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the committee’s top Democrat, pressed for a tough investigation and for the United Nations to make public the list of countries and companies that participated in the oil-for-food programme.

But he also urged the Bush administration to get more UN help to launch a new government in Iraq and “take the American face” off of the Iraqi occupation.

Virginia Republican George Allen blamed the United Nations for “complete ineptitude, with the lack of transparency, the lack of any scrutiny” that helped Saddam prop up his regime while depriving the Iraqi people of food and medicine.

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